Prescribed Identity in "Brother, I’m Dying"

[Author's Note: This is the second essay I've written this semester that I feel is worth sharing, this one from late November. Written for a class on memoir and the construction of self, it examines various issues of identity in the memoir Brother, I'm Dying. I've left in page references that should correspond to both hardback and paperback editions, and I'd certainly recommend the book, if not quite rave about it.]

Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying is a memoir of frustrated dreams and cruel ironies, especially those lived out by its two protagonists, the narrator’s father and “second father” Uncle Joseph. Edwidge is left to sort through their histories, questioning, analyzing, perhaps eventually fulfilling them in ways they could not—but her own life story (as the title attests) is not the basis of the memoir’s exploration of love and loss. Rather, Edwidge’s interpretation crystallizes around issues of self-identity as it relates to her family history and to Haitians both in Haiti and the United States. At the culmination of the tragedy, we find both brothers irreversibly displaced. Edwidge’s father, Mira, long since spurred by violence and poverty to take up residence in the United States, lives in isolation from his homeland and the brother he barely knew as illness weakens him. Her uncle Joseph, who remains behind in Haiti, realizes that his homeland has turned against him and that he too must flee to the United States, where he meets a sudden, humiliating death. Just months away from his own death and soon after the passing of his elder brother, Mira tearfully reflects, “If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here” (251). A moment before, Edwidge speculates of her uncle, “Did he think it ironic that he would soon be the dead prisoner of the same government that had been occupying his country when he was born? In essence he was entering and exiting the world under the same flag. Never really sovereign... never really free” (250). This displacement is the cumulative result of actions, both momentous and seemingly insignificant, that are motivated by characters’ conceptions of racial, ethnic, or national identity. That greater societies remain so sensitive to these distinctions forces the central players of Brother, I’m Dying to accept them, even as they contradict one another, as fixtures of their own selfhood.

In the first, telling alignment of fate, the echoes of which will haunt him all his life, Joseph is born into an American-occupied Haiti. From childhood on, his ideals for himself and his country are defined in direct opposition to the United States as foreign oppressor—and the impact of this occupation even on his earliest years is highly significant. His father is a committed fighter for the resistance movement and absent, for extended periods, from his children’s lives. Meanwhile, Joseph and his sisters are sheltered from harm but are given no information about their father’s whereabouts or safety. Most revealingly, Joseph’s first encounter with Americans (or, indeed, whites) involves a group of soldiers kicking around a severed Haitian head—a traumatic experience for any young boy. Interestingly, the understanding Danticat imparts on her young uncle is that “then, as now, the world outside Beauséjour was treacherous indeed” (247). Already, Joseph sees that the outside world has taken something from Haiti and of his own innocence—denied them the “chance” his brother later speaks of.

This leaves Joseph with an inexorable future ahead: confronted with the bloody works of “others,” he has to define an “us” with reference to “them.” His actions, his choices for himself, his ideas of himself—all indicate an effort toward undoing the trauma of his earliest past (perhaps even more than avoiding future crisis). He is, for the bulk of his life, committed to Haitian reform and populist politics (in opposition to the kind of iron-fisted government that would, as he recalls, make arrests for growing one’s hair out or going barefoot). In a similar spirit, he later turns to the church, a pastor at his own Eglise Chrétienne de la Rédemption, though his primary role might be more accurately described as “community builder.” Having taken on a strict but rewarding Baptist lifestyle and identity, certainly a relic of white influence in Haiti, Joseph can now access American missionaries as fellows, and manages to solicit from them “a monthly contribution for a free lunch program for [his] students,” serving his people while laying the seed for later conflicts of selfhood (34). Amidst the increasing political unrest of Haiti in the early twenty-first century, he remains resiliently behind, so deeply has he forged his own niche in and as a part of that society.

His final flight from Haiti, then, is ironic from a number of perspectives: he is condemned by the people for whom he has given so much; he is accused of giving aid to the UN forces, next in a series of foreign occupants, in their violent struggle with Haitian gangs; and he is forced, by threat of death, to turn to the United States, to a thin and somewhat troubling thread of his identity, where he will die. Edwidge herself realizes the weight of these contradictions years earlier while talking to an American consul as she is about to emigrate:
Sensing that it was the right thing to do, we both nodded, as if bowing to the flag that our grandfather had once fought against, that our mother and father had now embraced for nearly ten years, that we were about to make our own.... I felt my old life quickly slipping away. I was surrendering myself... (106)
This demonstrates not only that Edwidge and Joseph feel the weight of a new, inevitable, and troubling sense of self pressing in on them, one that is (at least in part) American or reliant on America, but moreover that there was a pre-existing self that was defined strongly as un-American and informs this reaction. Joseph was the automatic inheritor (as was Edwidge under his parenting) of a distinctly Haitian identity.

Mira’s story begins and ends somewhat differently, despite some thematic overlap with that of his brother. Notably, he is born twelve years after Joseph, after the end of American occupation and the period in which his father, Grandpè Nozial to Edwidge, was away from his children fighting for the resistance—altogether a very different childhood landscape. From his perspective, violence in Haiti is a product of internal turmoil—he is harassed and threatened at his modest job as a shoe salesman by President “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Macoute militia, and when he is soon charged additionally with supporting a family, he feels that for their safety and economic prospects he will have to look to America and eventual emigration—a decision, perhaps, to which his never brother could never have committed. Mira is bounded by a sense of obligation not to the Haitian community, which would have at the forefront of a country engulfed in a foreign war, but to his own ambitions, interests, and concerns—already a somewhat more American notion of priority. Along these lines, he devotes himself fully, missing out, as does his wife, on most of Edwidge’s childhood to pave economic inroads in the United States, an action that could only have been undertaken with a more fluid sense of national and cultural identity.

This dissonance in identification is apparent to both brothers. Of Joseph’s immediate withdrawal to Haiti after undergoing radical laryngectomy in New York, Mira reflects, “Our lives were now even more solidly on different tracks…. I don’t think he ever really wanted to leave Bel Air for any place in or outside of Haiti” (42). But his conclusion after Joseph’s funeral and burial in Queens reflects a more certain, and mournful, understanding: “He shouldn’t be here” (251). What is interesting to consider is the process that informed this development.

Mira’s story in America is arguably one of disillusionment. On his first visit back to Haiti since his departure, years before Edwidge and her younger brother Bob emigrate, Mira regales a captive audience with violent urban legends of New York, confirming a claim that New York is “as dangerous as it can be with the macoutes here” (92). While he does this with more than a touch of grandiosity, he nonetheless admits into his dichotomy of America and Haiti a shared presence of violence. In another twist of irony, his work as a taxicab driver leads him to encounter threats against his life, much the way his work as a shoe salesman did in Haiti. He is also subject to unwarranted and unchecked cruelty from his employers: he is fired from a factory job when his boss won’t let him leave early to pick up his children at the airport, and his cabdriver’s license is revoked when he fails a drug test on prescription codeine—despite a written appeal from his doctor. The treatment to which his race, class, and ethnicity consigns him is the undoing of his optimism for America, forcing him, in the process, to revert to an identity scheme similar to Joseph’s—one of Haitians struggling against and reluctantly turning to the same multilateral oppressor. At the end of his life, it is of Haiti Mira thinks tragically as “our country” and longs for the life in which “none of us would live or die [in America]” (251).

Edwidge Danticat’s account of the separate lives of her two fathers, unified ultimately by the twin arc of their long, slow deaths, takes on the weight of tragedy principally through the seeming futility of their actions, or more accurately the identity they are handed down, challenged by, and frustrated by for the rest of their lives. Both Joseph and Mira’s early development and negotiation of selfhood left them with distinct sets of aspirations for effecting permanent change to their worlds, neither of which was fully realized. The memoir, however, does not belong in the class of absolute tragedy: there are more than a few glimmers of redemption. Danticat leaves the reader with the understanding that however our identity, and our treatment as the same, is largely determined by societal divisions, varying experience sets matter enormously. Just as Joseph and Mira were initially set apart by different childhood circumstances, so will Edwidge’s life, and that of her infant daughter Mira, be lived out in different, and unpredictable, terms.

Visions of China in “Heaven” and “Persimmons”

[Author's Note: In order to stave off writing a new essay, I've decided to seize this busy moment to post a couple I've written this past semester that I'm decently proud of. This one's from late September, for my "Imagining America" English class. I'm sure you could find both poems discussed below online—it might be helpful to reference them (I've left in line citations). I think this is a fairly insightful analysis, and I really love the phrase "stern matron of disambiguation."]

Poets Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee share a curious number of biographical similarities, many of which notably inform their work. Born two years apart, Song in Hawaii and Lee in Indonesia, they both predominately claim Chinese heritage and American upbringing. They emerged as part of a larger wave of Asian-American writers in the Seventies and Eighties and scored critical acclaim with their inaugural collections, Song's Picture Bride (1982) and Lee's Rose (1986). Over the course of their careers, both have continued to ruminate on themes of cross-cultural identity and concerns that, while universal, are deeply rooted in the Asian-American experience. In “Heaven” (from Song's sophomore collection, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light) and “Persimmons” (from Lee's debut), they examine the divisions that lay not only between but within individual Americans in a larger society that encourages assimilation and uniformity. Mired in dissatisfaction and isolation, the speakers in “Heaven” and “Persimmons” are able to transcend their often mundane or tiresome surroundings through the unifying fixations of the poems' titles, each recalling something of their ancestral Chinese homeland that is now lost to them.

In its surrealist, dreamlike contours, “Heaven” implicates three generations of Chinese-Americans across two continents in an integrated, cyclical vision of departures and returns. The speaker considers both her grandfather, who left China to build railroads in the old American West and never returned, and her son, of mixed race, who envisions China as heaven—peaceful, awaiting, and just out of sight. In evocative, visual language, Song draws a sharp contrast between the drab nearby and the idyllic remote. The speaker's home “just east of the Rockies” is rife with impermanence, decay, and inadequacy—“reedy aspen with light, fluttering leaves” for vegetation, “the broken fences, the whiny dog, the rattletrap cars” for possessions, and “this creek they call a river” for environment (17, 23, 29, 38). America is portrayed as a failed homeland, a mean, inhospitable surrogate for the China the speaker and her son have never known. The speaker's ambivalent feelings for her country are emphasized in her somewhat ironic reference to words and cultural relics that are uniquely American. She locates her home “on the pancake plains,” amidst “landlocked, makeshift ghost towns,” and describes a Wild West bustling with “shootouts and fistfights in the back alley,” characterizing the nation not only in its breakfast, geography, and mythos but in its hard-sounding and ruthlessly functional compound words (16, 49, 32).

The distant, unknown China fares distinctly better by the speaker's imaginative rendering. In the first stanza, China is described as “that blue flower on the map, / bluer than the sea,” and the rest of the poem alludes to China, whether directly or indirectly, by referencing both blue, classically associated with heaven, and the sea, the Pacific Ocean being the physical barrier (or bridge) between such separate poles of existence (6-7). The speaker describes the Rocky Mountains as “shimmering blue above the air,” leading her son to the poem's metaphysical conclusion that “you can see all the way to heaven” (58, 63). The sea remains largely as faraway as the China with which it's associated: their “landlocked” American home is “a mile above the sea” (49, 19). But the sea has also the power to transport—the speaker's grandfather came from Guangzhou, a port city navigable to the South China Sea, and as her son envisions heaven, he is described as “leaning out from the laundry's rigging, / the work shirts fluttering like sails” (61-62). Just as heaven is always a foil to the worldly, so is China-as-heaven a dream of escaping a dingy and unfulfilling lifestyle, fueled by a complex relationship and fixation with the past.

“Persimmons” taps into many of the same feelings of alienation and disillusionment, but Lee's approach is entirely different. Rather than focusing on setting and the sharp division between China and America, “Persimmons” concerns itself with the individual and the fracturing of Chinese and American identity within the narrator. This sense of disorientation and uncertainty becomes part of the structural map of the poem in the narrator's repeated confusion over pairs of English words. Doubling the crisis, however, is his loss of Chinese words as he forges an American identity; as he and Donna lie naked in the yard, says the narrator, “I teach her Chinese. / Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I've forgotten. / Naked: I've forgotten” (22-24). American experience comes as his Chinese self is blanked over. This fundamental confusion and disarray, a concern for things misplaced, forgotten, or misunderstood, is echoed in several carefully laid parallels. Mrs. Walker herself, that stern matron of disambiguation, is guilty of “not knowing the difference”: she presents a persimmon to the class as a “Chinese apple,” when in fact that term is ascribed to pomegranates (4, 43).

As in “Heaven,” the eponymous image of the poem is a kind of redemption that reconciles the reality of life in America with the narrator's longing to hold on to his Chinese past. That Lee used the persimmon in particular to achieve this effect is no accident: persimmons have historically been associated with Chinese herbal medicine and, in that field, are widely recognized for their restorative powers. The narrator's mother describes how “every persimmon has a sun / inside”—it is this metaphorical sun, classically representative of light, power, and goodness, that can penetrate the father's blindness as he recalls perfectly, in painting, the fullness of ripe persimmons (46-47). This image resonates in the cardinal's song (“The sun, the sun”) as the persimmons ripen on the windowsill; the sun imbibes the fruit with a sense of sublime perfection, as would be missing from the unripened fruit the careless Mrs. Walker serves and which the narrator must decline (53). The sun, then, represents China, stamping the persimmon with its memory. This is perhaps why the narrator tells the American Donna that “she is beautiful as the moon” (28). The moon and the sun occupy separate times and spaces, and he is learning to accept the duality of night and day, of American existence and Chinese heritage.

The titles “Heaven” and “Persimmons” are more than chance or arbitrary attempts to grasp at the “subject” of each poem. They represent two narrow but meaningful points of access for Chinese-Americans living estranged from any one culture to retain something, even if only a vision, of a purer and brighter Chinese past. Both poems are simultaneously an indictment of the shortcomings of a homogeneous, uncomprehending greater America and an acceptance of that reality as their future—heaven and persimmons can only be substantive enough to impact the speakers' attitudes towards their situations, not the situations themselves. It is telling that each poem ends on a note of clarity, tranquility, and closeness—as if Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee were reconciling with their own split identities, arriving at some intersection with the past that seems to transcend the present.


Philip Roth, Indignation

[Author's Note: The following review will appear in Friday's edition of The Wooster Voice. Let's hope the print version isn't inexcusably mangled this time.]

“Indignation,” the twenty-ninth novel from American writer Philip Roth, represents a unique transposition of the themes of his recent work. The concerns that occupied the ageing protagonist of, say, “Everyman” (2006)—the fragility of the body, the steady march of mortality—all these are present in the story of the much younger Marcus Messner.

Marcus is driven from his home in Newark, New Jersey, where he attends a local college, when his father, a kosher butcher, suddenly develops an irrational and incapacitating paranoia—he becomes convinced that his scrupulous and bookish son is in infinite danger and needs to be strictly guarded. Marcus relocates almost indiscriminately to Winesburg College in rural north-central Ohio, where the bulk of the novel unfolds.

All his actions here are driven by fear of the draft—it is the early Fifties and the Korean War is claiming thousands of young lives. He knows he will have to distinguish himself academically at Winesburg in order to avoid carnage overseas.

In one of the novel’s most brilliant parallels, Marcus’s dread of bloodshed in Korea is intertwined with his family’s history as butchers (the name Messner undoubtedly a play on the traditional German butcher surname “Metzner”). Marcus narrates:
I knew what blood looked like, encrusted around the necks of the chickens where they had been ritually slaughtered, dropping out of the beef onto my hands when I was cutting a rib steak along the bone, seeping through the brown paper bags despite the wax paper wrappings within, settling into the grooves crosshatched into the chopping block by the force of the cleaver crashing down.
His nightmares of butchery amount to a paranoia that rivals even his father’s, but which is still not enough to offset his profound sense of disorientation (and indignation) at conservative Winesburg. A series of at first commonplace encounters with peers and faculty earn him an unwanted notoriety and, as they build in intensity, take on the weight and drive of inevitable tragedy. As Roth puts it, “One’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”

The novel is often compelling, and certainly memorable. Where Roth succeeds most, as always, is in the power of his prose and the size of his ideas. Gems of insight and an infinite series of questions alike burst out of every single page. This is especially true of the dialogue. Perhaps the most remarkable scene is Marcus’s first, pivotal confrontation with the Dean of Men—an all-out values war between the atheist Marcus (drawing heavily on Bertrand Russell) and the traditionalist Dean, with neither devolving into caricature.

Roth’s juxtaposition of humor, shock, and gravity is also as scintillating as ever. As a bemused Marcus reacts to a series of unexpected sexual encounters, we know that tragedy only looms nearer in an environment that condemns sexual expression.

“Indignation” is by no means Roth’s most accomplished book, however. The narrator, though astute and incisive, is not completely credible. Simply put, Roth is better suited to write as an older sophisticate than he is a young sophisticate. The attempts he makes at a more natural voice come off halfhearted and awkward (“And lessons I loved—bring them on!”). That he narrates from a netherworld between life and death also strains believability.

In addition, the tragedy is imperfect. By the end of the novel, some pieces already feel superfluous—the tragic inevitability is not watertight. The ending itself comes off perfunctory and the ideas jumbled, as if we’re not sure what to take away from it.

“Indignation” is a fine novel and perhaps of particular interest to college students in and around north-central Ohio. However, first-time Roth readers would be better advised to start elsewhere.


[Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: NOTES]

[Author's Note: As before, here are the notes I took while listening to Tell Tale Signs and on which I based my review. There is nothing remotely polished about these notes. They reflect minute-by-minute impressions of the songs. There is, however, a lot here that did not make it into the review, if you really, really want to know what I thought of the album.]

Bob Dylan
Tell Tale Signs


*Mississippi [Unreleased, Time Out]. "Numbered days" theme of later work. Beautiful, simple, acoustic take in contrast to much of Time Out. One can see how from a producer's standpoint (Lanois's), this might be musically "pedestrian," but this is lovely. Lyrics full of love, gratitude, wisdom, and age. Bob Dylan at his most human. Vaguely Carpe Diem. Favorite lines: "All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime / Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme";

"Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me";

"My clothes are wet, tight on my skin / Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in"; "Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay / You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way."


Most of the Time [Alt., Oh Mercy]. In terms of music and instrumentation, very much like pre-electric Dylan, acoustic guitar and harmonica. Only his voice dates the song accurately. Very much less produced, again, than Lanois wanted and was eventually released. Lyrically, almost an update on "Blood on the Tracks," a view of love farther in retrospect. Each repetition of "most of the time" alludes to the frailty that undermines the general sense of wholeness. Less emotionally charged, more bare than album take.

Dignity [Piano Demo, Oh Mercy]. Lyrics considerably different from version released on Greatest Hits 3. Not a revelation, per se.

Someday Baby [Alt., Modern Times]. DRAMATICALLY different from the blues of the album. Sounds something like a march of self-empowerment in the wake of the hurt in love described. Lyrics substantially different. Might not have felt right on Modern Times--right call on passing this take over. "Living this way ain't a natural thing to do / Why was I born to love you?"

Red River Shore [Unreleased, Time Out]. Lanois (I'm guessing it's his doing) has this song all decked out in an interesting rhythmic pattern, which is welcome, and accordion, which isn't. Another song of long-ago love. Fine, formally perfect, but nothing to write home about. Best part is the last verse:

"Now, I've heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
Whenever someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring 'em on back to life
Well, I don't know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
'Cept the girl from the Red River shore"

Tell Ol' Bill [Alt., North Country Soundtrack]. Catchy, bouncy, dark melody--chunky piano, understated guitar, very effective. Suits the similarly troubled lyrics perfectly. Musically, it could be a jazz/pop song from the first half of the 20th century. "You trampled on me as you passed / Left the coldest kiss upon my brow."

Born In Time [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. Radically different lyrics from version on Red Sky. Impassioned, melodically inventive for Dylan, but the lyrics don't do much at all. Manages to sound trite and contrived, consigned to a less successful album.

Can't Wait [Alt., Time Out]. Again, substitutes entirely new verses for the ones that made the album. "I've been living on lame excuses"--there's a good line that didn't make Time Out.

Everything Is Broken [Alt., Oh Mercy]. Gleeful catalogue of broken things, little more. This is "Obviously Five Believers"-type Dylan. Actually would have worked pretty well on Blonde on Blonde (Lanois's dark, echoey production excepting).

*Dreamin' Of You [Unreleased, Time Out]. Very nice dark ambience with just the right bit of drive-force behind it, exactly what Lanois was good at. I don't see why this didn't make the album--this is excellent, and would have held its own with the best of the selected material. Another song of a man driven to desperation in visions of the "you" to whom the song is addressed: "Even if the flesh falls off my face / It won't matter as long as you're there."

Huck's Tune [Lucky You Soundtrack]. Country ballad. Lyrics fall somewhere between silly and brilliant. Like this: "All the merry little elves / Can go hang themselves / My faith is as cold as can be." Also typical age concerns: "I count the years / And I shed no tears / I'm blinded to what might have been." Through the prism of setting aside a problematic relationship. I like it.

Marchin' to the City [Unreleased, Time Out]. His voice sounds better than it did a decade later when you make that jump track to track! Slow, simple blues, shaped by piano and spidery Lanois-style organ, and shaded with subtle gospel stylings. The lyrics are quite interesting. "Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around, the more you feel alone"; "I'm carrying the roses that were given to me / And I'm thinking about paradise, wondering what it might be." Thematic follow-up to previous track. Powerful crescendo throughout relieves the track of three-chord monotony.

*High Water (for Charlie Patton) [Live, 2003]. COMPARE TO ALBUM VERSION. His voice takes a verse to really get in the swing of the song and to croak out the lines in full, but once his voice is there, the rest of the song gels simultaneously. Musically, this COOKS--his backing band turns in a very strong, heavy live performance here. The more outrageous lyrics really do work, and they form an effective contrast with the tame. Take lines like these: "I got a cravin' love for blazing speed, got a hopped up Mustang Ford / Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard"; "I'm getting' up in the morning - I believe I'll dust my broom." Lot of fun. Ends disc one strongly.


*Mississippi [Unreleased 2, Time Out]. Very different take from the other--lower, with bluesy slide-guitar touches. Again, his voice was noticeably fitter in '97 even if his overall tone has remained the same throughout the period represented. Very nice.

*32-20 Blues [Unreleased, World Gone Wrong]. Awesome acoustic blues, Robert Johnson cover.

Series of Dreams [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. Slower than take from Greatest Hits 3 / Bootleg 1-3. Again, whole verses are added, lines are exchanged, etc. Weird (for Dylan) use of synthesizer in bass. Very simple, straightforward kind of acoustic/electric-hybrid, buzzing rock, a little on the jittery end. Wouldn't have sounded weird around some corner of London Calling. Not fantastic.

God Knows [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. COMPARE WITH TAKE ON RED SKY. Fits quite well after previous track. Wouldn't sound weird on a Stones album, same kind of rockin' murkiness.

Can't Escape from You [Unreleased, 2005]. "?The dead bells are ringing / My train is overdue"; "It never should have ended / I should have kissed you in the rain"; "I can't help looking at you / You made love with God knows who." A few interesting lyrics, otherwise standard old-timey ballad.

Dignity [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. This take has a Truckin'-like triplet riff running through it. "Blind man breakin' out of a trance / Puts both of his hands in the bucket of chance / Hoping to find one circumstance of dignity." Rich in characters and allusion. (?Check out Don Juan verse again.)

*Ring Them Bells [Live, 1993]. Nice incorporation of both acoustic and pedal steel guitar in the instrumental mix. Builds to HIGH emotional climax on bridge.

"Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they're breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong."

Very nice.

Cocaine Blues [Live, 1997]. Different song from the one Johnny Cash sings. Again, nice pedal steel and acoustic juxtaposition. Dylan's frenzied vocal performance is appropriately attuned to the underlying sickness and desperation of the song--the raggedness of it really works here, as to the rustic harmonies of the backup singer.

*Ain't Talkin' [Alt., Modern Times]. Not too fundamentally different from the album take, but by the same token, equally impressive. Interesting hint of fingerpicking banjo faint in the mix. As anyone who has heard Modern Times knows, this song is a dark conclusion to that album. "If I catch my opponents ever sleepin' / I'll just slaughter them where they lie";

"Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through the world mysterious and vague
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walking through the cities of the plague"

A handful of lyrics exchanged. Lyrically (perhaps because of its abridged length), not quite as powerful a statement as it was on Modern Times, but holds its own with the best of this album. A definite highlight.

The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore [Live, 1992]. Traditional Appalachian folk song, very much like something Garcia and Grisman would have tackled around the same time, or Dylan early in his career. Solo acoustic. Nice on the heels of more thickly arranged original material.

*Lonesome Day Blues [Live, 2002]. Wow, growling voice here. Occasionally funny blues. "Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months / Don't know how it looked to other people - I never slept with her even once"; "Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least." The vocal affect here is similarly hilarious, like the lyrics. "My captain, he's decorated - he's well schooled and he's skilled / He's not sentimental - don't bother him at all how many of his pals have been killed." This is a minor gem of a song [COMPARE TO LOVE AND THEFT!]. This is the equal of the best of his recent songwriting, like Thunder on the Mountain, and probably of his entire career. Appropriately DYLANESQUE, too. Oh, and the blues are rollicking.

Miss the Mississippi [Unreleased, 1992]. Lovely, old-timey country ballad. Again, nice arrangement--the organ, mandolin, pedal steel. Bill Halley song, apparently. Pleasant.

The Lonesome River [with Ralph Stanley]. Wow, bona fide bluegrass arrangement.

Cross the Green Mountain [Gods and Generals Soundtrack]. Appropriate closing track, certainly. The lyrics aren't fantastic, probably much better in the context of a Civil War film. Somewhat cliche, actually. Part of it seems to be an elegy for Stonewall Jackson, actually. Some verses are bad ("Pride will vanish and glory will rot / But virtue lives and cannot be forgot"), some are better ("Let them say that I walked in fair nature's light / And that I was loyal to truth and to right"). Too many poetic inversions not to sound forced. Subpar Dylan work. I don't know why he closed the album with it.

* denotes a handful of songs I happened to especially enjoy

Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs

[Author's Note: This review will be published in Friday's edition of the Wooster Voice. Notice I've reverted to that ridiculous newspaper convention of putting titles that should be italicized in quotes.]

Bob Dylan
"Tell Tale Signs"

In a career unrivaled in popular music, Bob Dylan's on yet another high. His 2006 album "Modern Times" was met with nearly universal acclaim, entering the U.S. charts at #1 and subsequently named album of the year by "Rolling Stone." Earlier this year, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for the arts.

Riding on this wave is "Tell Tale Signs," the eighth volume of his ongoing "Bootleg Series" and his first collection of unreleased material in two years. "Tell Tale Signs" encompasses outtakes, alternate takes, live tracks, and other rarities from 1989-2006, a period of renewed creativity that yielded not only "Modern Times" but the equally celebrated "Time Out of Mind" (1997) and "Love and Theft" (2001).

Much of this material is hardly new at all—in fact, most of it’s been sitting in the vault for over ten years. Nonetheless, it's very much representative of recent Dylan. His voice is grizzled and craggy. His lyrics spotlight the concerns of aging and mortality even as they reflect a weary, experienced kind of contentment and an often biting sense of humor. His music draws not only on timeless Americana—folk, country, and the blues—but pop balladry circa the early 1900's.

What these two discs reveal is the volume of material that was recorded for, and left off, many of Dylan's recent albums. "Tell Tale Signs" includes five unique songs axed from "Time Out of Mind," as well as four from 1989's "Oh Mercy."

It is a wonder that some of these songs have never seen the light of day until now. "Dreamin' of You," recorded for "Time Out of Mind," is among the highlights of the collection, boasting a dark ambience befitting its desperation in lyrics like, "Even if the flesh falls off my face / It won't matter as long as you're there." From the same sessions, “Marchin’ to the City” is first-rate blues sketched out in piano and organ and tinged with subtle gospel shadings.

Equally regrettable was that the brilliantly silly "Huck's Tune" ("All the merry little elves / Can go hang themselves / My faith is as cold as can be") was consigned to last year's box-office flop "Lucky You." And perhaps the strongest song featured here—the lovely "Mississippi" appears as two distinct outtakes from "Time Out of Mind"—was vetoed by producer Daniel Lanois before being given to Sheryl Crow and rerecorded by Dylan for "Love and Theft."

However, the general sense is that the cuts were judicious—most of the best material here has already surfaced in some form. "Red River Shore," which appears for the first time here, is formally perfect but bland and unremarkable; it is redeemed only by Jesus (literally), whose healing powers are referenced in the witty closing verse ("I don't know what kind of language he used / Or if they do that kind of thing anymore"). Even more disappointing is "Cross the Green Mountain," the album's closing track, previously released on the soundtrack for civil war film "Gods and Generals." The song collapses under romantic clichés and forced rhymes, as in, "Pride will vanish and glory will rot / But virtues lives and cannot be forgot."

The live tracks are often phenomenal, however, and showcase Dylan’s range as a performer. The version of “High Water” that closes the first disc gels almost instantly, boosted by his ever-exemplary touring band and an almost manic vocal performance which gives extra punch to Dylanisms like, “I’m gettin’ up in the morning—I believe I’ll dust my broom.” In stark contrast, he revives the traditional Appalachian “Girl on the Greenbriar Shore” in a solo acoustic performance recalling his earliest days as a Greenwich Village folkie.

“Tell Tale Signs” contains more than a few pleasant surprises for any Dylan fan. While it isn’t as strong as any of his recent studio albums or the previous volume of the “Bootleg Series,” which similarly reexamined his career through 1966, “Tell Tale Signs” is rich, diverse, and rewarding, ample reminder that Dylan, at 67, just “keeps on keepin’ on.”


[Mike Gordon, 8/29/08 Boulder, CO: NOTES]

[Author's Note: For any who are interested, I've posted the notes, unedited, that I took as I listened to Boulder 2008 and from which I wrote the Voice review. These detail, at length, my reaction song-by-song, blow-by-blow--not purely for myself, though, because there's certainly a suggestion of the piece I was trying to write and especially the audience I was writing for. Phish enthusiasts might be used to reading reviews in this format at phish.net. You'll notice my sanctimonious use of brackets around the title, indicating that this is not a real post. What the hell, though.]

Mike Gordon - bass, vocals
Scott Murawski - guitar, vocals
Todd Isler - drums
Tom Cleary - keyboards, vocals
Craig Myers - percussion, n'goni, vocals

8/29/08 Boulder, CO


*Andelmans' Yard. Funky, polyrhythmic groove right from the outset that belies(?) bright, poppy melody. Murawski plays with fingerpicking-like style. Mike provides wonderful, active counterpoint/response to Murawski, Cleary. The playing and solos are effervescent and largely tight (only occasionally swampy). The chemistry in this band is immediately apparent--a skillful jam band playing cohesively and listening to one another. The singing is (as typical for jam bands) somewhat weaker, but certainly not to the point of distraction. Chromatic, Phish-like conclusion.

Rhymes. A rocker, even a gentle headbanger. Plays cleverly (as the title suggests) with simple rhyming couplets, some of them (cite first lines) from children's songs. More typical blues-derived fare, executed with propulsive energy. Hot licks from Murawski, Cleary on organ, and Mike's typically excellent, bouncy bass playing. >

*Sound. Similar chord progression to Uncle John's Band, incidentally. Vocals are still shaky, and the lyrics may not be to the taste of those not accustomed to hippie-fare. Sounds almost calypso-like, or like Cajun-funk, at points. Traces ancestry to Once in a Lifetime and Ya Mar. Resumes bluesy, darker edge for >

Rhymes. Really cool keyboard playing over riffing in coda. >

*Another Door. DOUBLE SANDWICH! Awesome from the outset, with complex, intricate playing. Another bright number, the Phishiest sounding so far. CRAZY groovy jam after the lyrics portion. Nasally synth-bass (Mike's really heating it up!) underneath Murawski's hot leads. Definite highlight of show so far. Phish could funk it up like this only on their best of days. Modulates (smoothly!) upward for >

No One Receiving. (Brian Eno cover.) Who's singing? Not bad! Cleary really affirms his considerable merit as a keyboardist. Typically awesome jamming with an ambient texture more than suitable for a Brian Eno song. (Same two-chord B-A pattern as Fire on the Mountain, incidentally.) >

(*)Another Door. Pops back into this song (in a completely different key and tempo) in one FLASH moment. Unbelievably smooth transition. It's like they just walked through Another Door. Singing is definitely smoother by this point. Drum roll into the end of an UNBELIEVABLE sequence (about 35 min. long). Mike, being the silly man he is, croons "thank YOOOOOUUUU" into the mic before introducing the band and crew.

Weekly Time. Another funky beginning, with Mike just gurgling up the synth-bass tone, contrasted by Cleary's barroom, country-like playing on piano and country-style vocal harmonies. Reminds me more than a little bit of a Rolling Stones song like Dead Flowers or Let It Bleed, or else a less placid They Love Each Other. Somewhat exceeds the dimensions the song needs, or maybe it's just one of the more typical-sounding songs of the set. >

River Niger. The modal quality evokes English folk, albeit gently funked-up. Cleary's keyboard runs dominate introduction. Murawski plays with some gentle, effective feedback. All instrumental, a beautiful collage of that shimmery, folk-style playing combined with the rhythms of African-dervied funk. Mike largely understated as Cleary takes more sweet runs, this time on organ. >

La La La. A third bright number with that calypso/Cajun feel. Gets considerably darker as the song progresses into minor, slipping into Talking Heads-style groove, during which Mike trots out the synth-bass sound again. Back into major for second vocals. After these, Cleary actually plays the synth-harpsichord. Interesting touch, if a little... hokie? It's inventive, and that's the point. Back on traditional electric piano sounds, with everyone grooving around him, could be mid-70s Herbie Hancock. The song ends in exploratory dissonances, dark, but calling it suspenseful would reduce it to comedy. >

*Traveled Too Far. This feeling definitely carries through here. Craig Myers lays down slow, tribal sounding beat. Another groove that clearly documents a Talking Heads influence in its slow-burning polyrhythms, but their pursuit is looser, jazzier. The n'goni, if that's what it's called, adds some deep undertones to the rhythm section. Bizarre Meet the Flinstones quote/tease! Mike and Murawski (I believe) start vocal jamming it out. Definitely not a melodic number, the first, perhaps, to reject melody. Hits upon different keys, moods, tempos. Murawski might also be quoting Maria, but it could have been accidental. More sudden shift to F minor, Help on the Way feel. Lyrics! Melody! This is the song proper! It took eight minutes of seemingly unrelated grooves to get here. The music is more typically rock, the singing isn't grant, and it's not necessarily a better place to be. Silly lyrics, again perhaps not to the non-Phishhead's taste. Jam out has Murawski sounding very much like Trey, even teasing Antelope! >

Emotional Railroad. More standard pop-rock feel, like latter-day Stones, almost? Cleary's spiraling keyboard solo sounds like a cross between Herbie Hancock and Brent Mydland--and it's excellent! It's amazing what you can do over a pretty pedestrian song. His playing edges out Murawski's which is still wildly excellent and technically crisp--I wonder how often Mike could get Trey to play like that. Mike continues to rip up the basslines, but what else is new? >

I'm Deranged. (David Bowie cover, apparently co-written with Eno.) Darker, funkier, almost electronica-like feel. Sounds like a Bowie song, except with Mike singing. Cleary's picked out a synth-vibe that may or may not be cheesy, but it fits the whole David Bowie dance-tempo thing. >

(*)Traveled Too Far. Back to F minor section. Cleary is the most impressive member of this band. He just is. Love his sound on plain old acoustic piano. Incidentally, this is hardly a concern of today's live recordings, but the sound quality is excellent. Reprise vocals, and Cleary plays Riders on the Storm-like descending pattern over Mike's "thanks for coming out tonight!" Major sequence of the show comes to an end (65 min.).


On A Bad Day. Simple, country-rock feel, straightforward, heartfelt lyrics. All that. >

*Dig Further Down. Another rocker, this one even purer. Murawski's vocals, with their nasty growl, are more typically rock-sounding than Mike's. Cleary tears up another solo, this one getting him to sound like Rick Wakeman! The hardest song of the whole show. This is Murawski's territory, if not mine as much, and he tears into a guitar-god solo with enthusiasm.

* indicates track from The Green Sparrow (5 tracks--half the album!)
(*) - courtesy accidental (ha ha)

No tracks from previous solo album (Inside In), collaborations with Leo Kottke, or Phish.

Mike Gordon, 8/29/08 Boulder, CO

[Author's Note: This review will be published in Friday's edition of the Wooster Voice.]

Mike Gordon
Boulder 2008

2008 has proven the best year for fans of Phish since the jam band's 2004 breakup. Court-ordered rehabilitation now behind him, guitarist Trey Anastasio has been writing and performing with renewed vigor. In a letter posted on the band's website, pianist Page McConnell confirmed rumors that the four plan on getting together by the end of the year and exploring their options—even the possibility of a reunion.

But mostly, 2008 has been Mike Gordon's year. The Phish bassist released his second solo album, The Green Sparrow, on August 5th to considerable acclaim and toured throughout the summer with what a new live album reveals to be a top-notch supporting band.

Boulder 2008 comprises this band's two-hour set, uncut, from August 29th at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. Gordon is joined by guitarist and long-time collaborator Scott Murawski of fellow jam band Max Creek, as well as by Tom Cleary on keyboards, Todd Isler on drums, and Craig Myers on percussion.

The band's potent chemistry is apparent from the first notes of the show's opener, “Andelman's Yard,” one of five cuts from The Green Sparrow. Here they lay down a funky, polyrhythmic groove that belies the song's bright, poppy melody—it is this juxtaposition, but especially the deep, sometimes jittery funk, that sets the tone for the evening.

The playing is uniformly excellent. This is a band that, like Phish at its best, performs as a tight, cohesive unit—musicians who can listen to each other—which isn't to say that they don't shine individually. Cleary's keyboard playing steals the show for me. It's rich, clear, and precise, and draws on a spectrum of influences from Herbie Hancock to legendary session musician Nikki Hopkins, from Rick Wakeman of Yes to the Grateful Dead's Brent Mydland. One can even forgive him for using an overabundance of synthesizer voices, down to a synth-harpsichord on “La La La.” Murawski is a fine guitarist, though he favors a bluesier edge that occasionally feels lost within the funk.

The singing isn't nearly as strong—shaky, with a few moments of redemption (as on a cover of Brian Eno's “No One Receiving”). Similarly, the originals, however fun and well-crafted, are hardly gems of songwriting (the lyrics, in particular, may put off those unaccustomed to hippie-fare). On the whole, given the predominance of jamming, neither complaint is a huge strike against the performance.

After the standalone opener, the set unfolds in two long, seamless sequences of music. In the first comes the highlight of the entire show, “Another Door,” also off The Green Sparrow. After Gordon positively tears through a nasally, synth-bass groove, the band modulates smoothly into the cool, ambient “No One Receiving” before returning to “Another Door” in a single, flash moment as if they'd never left it. It is truly a breathtaking musical accomplishment.

Similarly, the extended “Traveled Too Far” is the capstone of the second, sixty-five minute sequence. Craig Myers's percussion provides a slow-burning, African-derived undercurrent that recalls the Talking Heads circa Remain in Light, but this band's pursuit is looser and jazzier. They flirt with and reject different themes, moods, tempos—quoting everything from Leonard Bernstein's “Maria” to Phish's own “Run Like an Antelope”—before snapping into the song proper after eight full minutes.

A cover of David Bowie's “I'm Deranged,” which attempts a danceable, electronica-like vibe, is the only song of the set that falls flat. To the musicians' credit, it sounds like mid-90s Bowie, which is also precisely why it feels out of place.

Boulder 2008 is by and large an excellent show, one which is both adroit and adventurous, accessible and imaginative. For fans of improvisational music, whether rock or funk or jazz, it is highly recommended. Boulder 2008 is available for download, or may be pre-ordered on CD, at livephish.com.


Thoughts on Morality

[Author's Note: The other lengthy essay I wrote for philosophy senior year, this one dating from May-June 2008. The composition bookended a May 31 wedding in Iowa which came in the midst of one of my happiest periods in recent memory. I believe it's a stronger piece than "Thoughts on Beauty" and shows the culmination of my philosophical shift that year away from moral relativism toward surer, if not absolute, judgments. The format of this "moral handbook" is that of a letter to my child leaving moral guidance in the event of my death. I've removed irrelevant citations.]

My child, if you are reading this, I am dead, unless the coroner is in grave error or the doctors sadly mistaken. I am an ex-Parrott. You can’t imagine how long I’ve been dying to spill these fatal jokes—I hope they, like Sam’s champagne in Casablanca, take the sting out, allowing you in your present and me in mine to just breathe and carry on. My sincerest regret (the statement already seems to contract inside me with sorrow) is that I could not spend an eternity with the people I love best (love, life, humanity—all so bittersweet), that I could not continue to be your father, to see who you’ll become. That breaks my heart. Worse still, though, would be to leave you swamped with truncated parenting, to abandon you to a disrupted upbringing with no last, meaningful words of guidance. Let this, then, be the culminating piece in your moral construction to the extent that I can offer one, and I am not so arrogant to think that I can offer one in full.

First, I think it’s important for me now to swear off any overtly religious concerns in writing this. As you know, I am not and have not been religious in any sense. I do not believe in any human conception of divine, nor do I consider the unknowable metaphysics of the universe to have any meaningful bearing on moral considerations. I feel there is a great problem, an absence of good thinking, in every religious tradition—I could elaborate on this elsewhere. However, religion is certainly not incompatible with a life well lived, and, indeed, many teachings associated with faith have undeniable secular merit, and this influence I will not disavow. Above all, I have always wanted for you to make your own decisions in the world, in religion as in all things, trusting to the intellect I know you to possess; and so, I hope you will find my ideas worthy of the love I have for you, whatever these decisions have been.

Because we will not be borrowing preexisting moral tenets from religion, we will have to fashion our own. If morality is action in accordance with entrenched values or overarching good, we must first establish the clearest way to understand what these might be—an umbrella to cover most individual cases. Aristotle outlined these as a series (not necessarily finite) of virtues that are the mean between two opposing vices, one excessive and the other deficient—for example, pride as the virtuous mean of vanity and humility, friendliness of obsequiousness and sulkiness. There are a number of problems in this approach. We may have limited understanding of where exactly extremes and means lie, as not all moral considerations fit a clear continuum. In addition, following the central of whatever three signposts we can generate doesn’t necessarily constitute a virtuous action. The mean between passivity and aggression is reactionary violence, and we as of yet have no reasons for taking that as virtue on its own merits.

There is a missing piece, a greater, less tenuous value that we can, and do, pursue consistently. Many, Aristotle included, would call this happiness. I would argue that happiness, correctly understood, is just a function of the inherent value of life. I feel that needs some emphasis: life. Life informs our understanding of all things, just as the fact of our own existence may be the only thing we truly know. An interest in the thriving success of our own species, especially, is fundamentally sound, inseparable from our biology. In nonmoral considerations, a rejection of the value of life is bad thinking, as the tribal belief cited by Louis Pojman that “deformed children belong to the hippopotamus” is a false conjecture. Similarly, in moral considerations, a rejection of the value of life is basically immoral, a slight against all humanity.

Our moral actions can now have a purpose: to affirm life and to provide quality lives for ourselves and others, in which a degree of benevolence is implied. Already, we see a certain duality emerging—a conflict between self-interest and altruism that will need to be thoughtfully resolved, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. Ayn Rand famously renders the former as the virtue and the latter as the sin, but I’m inclined to agree with Pojman—her sharp dichotomy between the two is a false dilemma. To consider life in a moral way is to consider all life, however tempered this consideration is by our perspective, inevitably and not improperly. It is biologically correct that we should balance the two impulses—preserving and enriching our own lives, enabling all other actions, while seeking the lasting prosperity of our species and according particular “high altruism” to those closest to us. The balance between these should not necessarily be knowable, or even balanced. Love, for instance, is not a rational force, but it is common to all human life and should therefore not be denied as a factor among others in moral decision-making. The failure to account for this breed of selfishness is one of the shortcomings of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill stated that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” but a moral decision that has been computed with almost mathematical rigor is potentially flawed. One value is weighed against others, even one person’s happiness against others—but the end result may not make numerical sense.

There are always other principles at stake, perhaps because “life” is a very difficult entity to fathom before breaking it down, and from this process we have derived the majority of moral principles. However, this approach has been radically varied over the course of human history and has undeniably yielded beliefs that are radically incongruous with one another. It must be allowed, then, that many principles at least called “moral” are culturally relative; however, at the same time, it must also be allowed that many may be incorrectly derived from a value of life. The difficulty is whether to pursue moral absolutism, even when it may be ill-fitting or founded on incorrect principles, or to opt for variable-case relativism, which is, I will admit, philosophically and practically imperfect. Pojman observes that conventional ethical relativism founded on a virtue of tolerance quickly falls apart, because “if morality simply is relative to each culture then if the culture does not have a principle of tolerance, its members have no obligation to be tolerant.” Later, he concludes that we ourselves should be the arbiters of morality, acting on reason and compassion. This, I believe, neatly avoids the problems associated with rigid absolutism without slipping into the quagmire of relativism. Because moral absolutism asks us essentially not to judge, merely to react on the basis of sharply drawn lines between right and wrong, it may be infinitely inappropriate under principles with less than 100% universal applicability. On the other hand, life in constant and careful judgment necessarily risks errors in judgment, but it is a worthier moral cause because the human insight on which it is founded can bring us much closer to the central and subsidiary values that drive our existence, that we know almost intuitively.

The problem with the categorical imperative, accordingly, is that it is unconditional—although this deters a kind of moral waffling, life, as well as moral dilemmas, comes charged with conditions. From the value of life, we are lucky to derive even a few principles that may essentially be given as categorical imperatives, perhaps to 99.9% accuracy, with their potential for error being unknowable or ridiculously unlikely. The least problematic categorical imperatives are those most directly respectful of life—for instance, “Do not abuse others” is among the best I can think of, because physical, sexual, emotional abuse and cruelty are profanely negligent of the value of life.

I think we have developed a clear outline for how to act morally, even if moral decisions can never be made for us by unshakeable absolutes and what is right will always be difficult to discern. It is important, finally, to remember that we should act morally, because it is logical and correct to provide for a better world. When religion and fates beyond death are cleared from the picture, we are left with a view of a world that is (for our purposes) continuous, that stretches out far beyond the bounds of our transient existence. Anyone who feels healthy compassion for the rest of humanity will see the importance of life, and a respect for life as universally beneficial. Just as I have taken care to provide for your existence even when I can no longer live to see it, so must we all consider the larger tapestry that gives us some semblance of purpose and profound beauty in our actions.

Thoughts on Beauty

[Author's Note: I wrote the following essay for philosophy back in December 2007, which seems to be the month to beat so far. Like the previous two essays I've posted, and like countless others, I wrote it at the last minute and in a great hurry. It was due the last day of class before the winter break, and I stole away from pep rallies and empty classrooms to churn this out in the library. Looking back on it, I'm less proud of it than I remember being at the time, but there are still a few good ideas cited, and I couldn't possibly resist posting something that Mr. Pinsky expressed fondness for. Perhaps one day I'll give it the doctoring it needs to emerge stronger.]

Beauty is an ideal or concept that is so widely, diversely, and inconsistently cited that it would seem impossible in any valid sense to arrive at a core truth or set of absolute criteria. The term is applied with equal regularity to the stars at night, high-profile fashion models, and the pyramids at Giza. Is it then to be abandoned as a word whose usages have far exceeded a central, contained meaning? Even more problematic are variables in perceptions of beauty, that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring can move some listeners to tears but incited a riot at its debut. Who, then, if anyone, is the arbiter of beauty? Is beauty relative to individuals, groups, cultures—that is to say, meaningless and entirely subjective—or absolute, immutable, and universal? The answers, if they exist, lie in carefully separating beauty into its numerous and disparate connotations.

First, and perhaps at the forefront of a pedestrian conception of beauty, is physical beauty, the quality of human appearance that is inherently pleasing. Typically, we judge that physical beauty can’t be enhanced, only realized to its fullest potential—one can only be born with it, or grow into it. For example, an ugly person who wears flattering clothes may create an impression of goodness on another level—perhaps aesthetic—but the fact of his or her ugliness remains. A beautiful person who wears flattering clothes has only found the ideal social construct for highlighting a trait he or she already possesses.

Physical beauty does not correspond to sexual attractiveness. The former is a striking and pleasant appearance emulating an intuitive ideal; the latter stems from a viewer’s individual chemistry and psychology. There is undoubtedly overlap (along with, I would suggest, a third attribute of physical attractiveness, cuteness), but not by default. The beauty that is, to borrow from the saying, skin-deep seems to be generally agreed upon within a reasonable extent—allowing that not everyone is of equal capacity to judge beauty (as this evaluation requires a degree of mental faculty) and excepting varying cultural standards of beauty that function on a more aesthetic level. Across various social divides, and even from infancy, human beings react more positively to certain facial and body structures and forms, which often correlate to particular ratios. This would suggest physical beauty as a reflexive and inborn perception, an extant ideal. While not everyone will agree upon the one most beautiful person, most will agree upon a general dichotomy of beautiful versus average versus ugly.

Second is “inner beauty,” or, more appropriately, social beauty. Physical beauty and social beauty represent the two central aspects in which human beauty can be evaluated at face value. Social beauty is a reflection of merit as can be conveyed through social interaction. Intellectual brilliance is a compelling example, as is wisdom, wit, kindness, sympathy, charisma, serenity—all endearing traits of inherent value and goodness. This is the beauty of human nature on an individual, rather than cultural, basis.

Third is artistic beauty, which spans every medium in which art is created. To look at a specific example, music, helps focus ideas about how beauty may occur in art. Listeners who judge a work of music to be beautiful typically have sufficient knowledge about its composition and forms. Because of my familiarity with and study of opera, I have seen the beauty of the art form where the vast majority of my peers can’t. Conversely, because I have only recently applied myself to a fuller appreciation of jazz, I have not responded in kind to that genre. Forms to which I am ignorant are not beautiful, despite their indisputable potential to be so. Artistic beauty seems to represent divergent experience and standards enough to suggest it is not everyone’s intuitively as is physical beauty.

Once the listener has achieved the necessary degree of experience, beauty in music seems to rest largely on its humanity. Most music that I associate with beauty feels like a spark of brilliance, a wildflower confection of artistry, usually expressing profound pathos, or at least passion. This represents another profound departure from physical beauty, because artistic beauty does not reflect some existing ideal, but rather is new or at least derivative invention, in which it may be notably imperfect and still beautiful.

Just as physical beauty should be disambiguated from sexual attraction, musical beauty should be separated from the release of endorphins in the brain that accompanies music that is sensually pleasing. Because beautiful music does not necessarily have to be sensually pleasing, it may not even be pleasant to listen to. The Velvet Underground song “Heroin” is sketched out in two chords, a fluttering drumbeat, and an abrasive viola, and, because of the emotiveness running just beneath the cold surface, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know.

Key to artistic beauty is the recognition of excellence. Not to be confused with perfection or even near-perfection, excellence corresponds moreover to the idea of brilliance or lasting value.

Fourth is aesthetic beauty, which seems to stem from adherence to inherently pleasing notions of order, pattern, and arrangement. Many of the structural delights through which art achieves beauty fall under this heading—the acts in a play that block out segments of dramatic action, for instance. Cited examples of beauty in process, even on a fairly mechanical level, such as the mass production consumer goods, stem from the evenness and efficiency of their work. Some material that is classified as art may have a beauty that is more aesthetic along these lines. The artwork of Andy Warhol expresses an absolute void of pathos—it is the evenness and mass quantity of his works, their mechanical perfection and invariability that render his oeuvre beautiful. Evenness, as it is aesthetically beautiful, does not necessarily dictate sameness. Evenness of diversity, as long as it is an absolute and perfect diversity, is also beautiful.

Aesthetic beauty also encompasses natural beauty. Geographical and ecological forms are beautiful in their pattern and classification, sense of order and hierarchy. Snow melts in the mountains and forms streams, which join into rivers, which flow out to sea, where water is evaporated and the cycle repeats—that the world around us functions with often clear predictability and of its own accord is beautiful, or else our sense of aesthetic beauty is drawn from the world around us.

Fifth is the beauty of human civilization, stemming from the range of experience, potential, and accomplishment seen in all human societies. Language, whether it is spoken or written, has an aural or visual charm that exists independently of meaning or comprehension; Italian or Arabic may sound beautiful even to someone who has no knowledge of the language, and a similar beauty can be found in pen strokes, no matter the language or degree of legibility. As long as an understanding of human societies has been cultivated (and in extreme cases of neglect or mental retardation, it hasn’t), beauty can be perceived and understood.

As beauty of any kind that I have witnessed occurs in one of these forms, beauty itself and perceptions of beauty may be evaluated according to these five examples. Together, they would suggest that beauty is both relative and absolute, individual and shared. Beauty is perceived relative to one’s range of experience, from a lifetime’s scholarly devotion to the works of one writer, say, and the common experience of human existence. Beauty is absolute—relative to certain delineations of psychology, intellect, and experience. On the whole, perceptions of beauty are more shared than not, for, as Immanuel Kant observed, arbiters of beauty “[judge] not merely for [themselves], but for all men, and then [speak] of beauty as if it were a property of things.”


Big Fish, Small Fish

[Author's Note: Another college essay from December (New Year's Eve, no less). This one I wrote in a halfhearted and shameless stab at a scholarship to the College of Wooster, gleefully and (I believe) successfully tearing a somewhat trite prompt to thoroughly disoriented shreds. I think you'll be able to discern what the prompt was. The upshot of it all is, these four paragraphs were apparently worth $18,000 a year (or $18,000 a paragraph), and I'll be starting orientation at Wooster in less than a month. Sometimes, things turn out well.]

High school guidance counselors are proud to stand as little anchors of stability in the midst of whatever tumult might cause a student to seek them out, and no tumult is more formidable in its gravity and uncertainty than the college application process. In this, as in all things, counselors lean heavily on simple, unshakable absolutes—truisms such as “There is a college for everyone,” which is true enough, and dichotomies like “There are two kinds of colleges: small fish/big pond colleges and big fish/small pond colleges… which are you?” The latter is, by far, the more contentious point. First, I am not a college at all. I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas. Second, there are surely no fewer flavors of colleges than there are colleges, seeing as no two exist in parallel universes. And third, quite apart from the matter of postsecondary education, this apparently innocent question raises several questions of its own—questions that are troubling, muscular, and must be wrestled with—questions like: Can I not find a pond that directly corresponds to my size?

When I think of big ponds and the fish that would choose to swim in them, I think immediately of Jack Sparrow, wily and witty protagonist of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The fact that Jack is drawn to the biggest pond of all, the sea, even above all other pirate vices (rum, wenches, and brawling) radiates a sense of sublime self-worth. Jack’s braggadocio is ultimately a reflection of the thrills he seeks in life, a wild ambition that has far outgrown the smaller ponds of the world. The question, however, then becomes: Is Jack really a small fish in a big pond? Is he not a big fish? His conduct is perfectly outrageous; he is selfish, dishonest, vain, infamous, and lawless. When a Commodore of the English Royal Navy puts to Jack that he is “the worst pirate I have ever heard of,” Jack replies, “But you have heard of me,” speaking cheeky volumes about his size as a fish. The truth is that only a fish of considerable stature would willingly cast itself into a large pond, perhaps as a wild challenge the ordinary limitations that govern less ambitious fish.

Similarly, when I consider small ponds and big fish, I invariably think of Phish, the Vermont-based jam band (1983-2004, R.I.P.) of considerable renown. Their success, to the reasonable extent they enjoyed it, resulted from playing to a modest but rabid fan base that gradually, through word of mouth, spawned more fans. Phish got to be big fish by remaining faithful to the silly, eclectic band they wanted to be and to the small pond they occupied. Never once did they, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “open a window and make love to the world.” In another sense, however, Phish were really just four small fish: generally shy, easygoing, and unassuming. None of them aspired to the status they eventually attained, and they became far more uncomfortable with themselves as that status began to swell, hastening their eventual breakup. Fish that are truly and deeply small will only ever thrive in small ponds; let them wash out to sea and they lose their way.

Whether I’m a big fish or a small fish hardly seems to matter. Can I possibly avoid a catastrophically mismatched pond? Do they tailor ponds to be big enough to allow my dreams to breathe yet small enough to shelter my insecurities? Was this really about college all along? Ultimately, we are humans, not fish. We are courted by both risk and comfort, but only the latter preserves our mobility, forestalls a final, possibly fatal, decision. There’s no better place than the smallest pond in the world to contemplate a vast, cruel, unfathomable ocean.


In Defense of the Grateful Dead

[Author's Note: I wrote this brief essay back in December for my application to Colby College. The Rachel Carson quote is the single link to the prompt, which is why I didn't quite dare to rectify her opposing verb tenses. I thought this might serve as a good first post, as I intend to write a great deal about the Grateful Dead and other music/art with somewhat selective appeal—for all that, this is an exposition, an appreciation, and a defense.]

There’s this very common joke: What did the Deadhead say when the drugs ran out? Punch line: This music sucks! I’ve always found this joke rather tiresome, and not only as a slur on music I love; like most jokes that operate on wild stereotyping, it clearly doesn’t reflect much knowledge of its subject. Plenty of Grateful Dead (1965-95, R.I.P.) concertgoers avoided the drug scene altogether—most fans were there for the music. And no one who gives the music a ready ear can call it anything but what it is—vibrant, bold, and heartfelt. In fact, the first adjective I associate with the Grateful Dead is beautiful.

Certainly, their songs have an obvious beauty, built as they were on warm harmonies, memorable progressions, rich instrumentation, and considerable sentiment. The Grateful Dead weren’t out to shatter traditional songwriting forms. Many compositions even have an antiquated feel, like they might have stepped out of a sepia photograph. From the shimmering ebullience of “Eyes of the World” to the exhausted pathos of “Brokedown Palace,” beauty abounds.

But there is another type of beauty—a wilder, more elusive species—that was the heart and soul a Grateful Dead concert. When Rachel Carson observed that “one way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I have never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” she might easily have been referring to the Grateful Dead. The magic of the concert experience was not chemicals—it was a shared understanding between performers and audience that they were opening their eyes to beauty, to something in a passing moment that could be grasped only once before it was gone. The loose structure of concerts allowed the band to explore the deepest crevices of each song, as well as the space between songs, and at every show this attention to the moment blossomed in something beautiful and unique. Take one night’s (9/21/72) segue between “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew”—after twenty minutes chasing tricky, undulating jazz, the band suddenly find themselves in a crystalline, sparkling bluegrass jam. The spontaneity of it is like sunrise. In thirty years, the band played 2,317 concerts, and no two are alike. The moment is there, and then it’s gone.

Fortunately, the Grateful Dead came along at just the right crossroads of technology—they were playing to an audience, not to a studio engineer, but since recording equipment was nearly always on hand, many of their concerts were preserved for future listeners. A quick comparison between the rough-hewn spark of these tapes and the relative sterility of their studio work further affirms the essentiality of live performance. The Grateful Dead were built on that oldest relationship between artist and audience—sharing one space at the same time—in a century where the two grew ever farther apart.